Ask a Saxophone Repairman: Why Your Middle D Plays too Soft and What to Do About It

Ask A Saxophone Repairman

This post is part of a special column titled “Ask a Saxophone Repairman” with answers supplied by our resident repair whiz, Matt Stohrer of Stohrer Music.

Disclaimer: Saxophone repair is a complicated business, depending not only on the skill of the repairer but on the reality of the situation at hand. The advice given here is given without your horn in my hands, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, and take it upon yourself to get more opinions and form your own conclusions.  This column is not a substitute for finding a great saxophone repairman and building a relationship- instead it should be viewed as a resource to be used so that you can know more about your horn and become a smarter consumer and a better saxophonist.

Hey everyone,

Thanks for your patience and thank you for your questions! It’s been a busy one for me since my last column- I’ve moved house and shop across town and now that I’m back up and running and getting caught up on work, its time for another go-round. This is actually more like two articles in one, so grab your horn and settle in.

“Suggest a mouthpiece for me!”

Hey, you might want to give this blog post on my site a read: How to Choose a Saxophone Mouthpiece. As is my style, it’s rather long, but hopefully full of the kind of info you need to learn how to choose for yourself. It’s chock-full of links, definitions, and even a few videos.

“Hello,

I play a Keilwerth SX 90R tenor with a Couf mouthpiece and when I play a middle D it is softer sounding then the rest of the notes, I can open the low C# key and it plays fine ( a little sharp though). I have put a leak light down it and everything seals, what can I do to fix this or do I need to get used to opening the C# key. Thank you for any information.” 

–Sean

Another question that might seem simple actually has a lot of background information that is good to know. I’ll do my best to lay it out here – but remember, I am simplifying a topic that some folks get PhD’s in!

Middle D is actually a commonly problematic note, and assuming the horn is in proper working order and has been looked at by a competent, experienced and thoughtful repairman, what remains of the problem lies in the design of the saxophone itself. Some horns are worse than others, some players have a harder time than others, and different mouthpiece combinations can affect the outcome.

There are two major (and many more minor) inbuilt design compromises in the saxophone that can negatively affect the tone of the horn. These compromises exist because in order to fix the problems, the keywork would be overly complex (and therefore expensive) or require a new fingering system, and neither of those solutions will sell many saxophones. Every saxophone that is designed, built, and sold can be thought of as a unique recipe of compromises, and each design is therefore a different mix of good and bad, and your personal tastes will determine what things you are willing to endure to get the sound you want.

First major design compromise: some notes on the horn are vented by one or more open toneholes directly following the first open tonehole, some notes are not. The notes that are not, like D, F# (when not fingered with the alt. F#), E, A, middle and upper C- have to deal with relatively less venting than those with more than one open tonehole directly following, and this can sometimes affect intonation or the relative stuffyness of the note.

As I walk through this, remember that the when you play saxophone, the note comes out of the first open tonehole. So when you finger low E, the note is coming out of the tonehole under the D key.

Why does this compromise exist, you ask? Well the short answer is because we only have ten fingers and many more toneholes on the saxophone than that. So the design of the instrument includes toneholes that are closed by default in some places (like low Eb), and other times where one key closes more than one pad (finger middle C and look how many pads close!). This inescapably leads to having situations where the venting of a note is different than acoustically ideal. And since the toneholes and the notes they help produce are interconnected in many ways- not only for venting, but the volume of the bore inside a tonehole that is closed will affect other notes to greater or lesser degrees depending on the location, note played, and octave in which we are working.

Therefore, compromise is needed – each note might not be perfect, but through tonehole positioning and tonehole sizing, a reasonable compromise can usually be found, but sometimes not without auditory evidence. Like middle C. Because it is undervented, it sounds way stuffier than side C- hence the old-timers calling side C “ballad C”- when you’ve got to hold a middle C for a long time, use side C!

For a simple test that will illuminate this principle, play F and slowly lower your D key. The tonehole directly below F remains open and unchanged, yet the intonation and sound is affected. Or you can play B, but close the G key. Or play C, but close all of the lower stack (F-E-D).

Note: Playing around like this is not only interesting but also illuminating, and may lead you to find some sounds in your horn that aren’t strictly taught in your method books. Who knows, keep messing around and maybe one day you can play like this guy. Remember what you are hearing there is just that guy playing – no effects or loops, just incredible technique and taking advantage of the harmonic series present in the saxophone – including the one you own.

Ok so back to your particular issue: for the D, the next open tonehole is the low C, and then the low C# is closed- restricting your venting. You can try opening up the key height on your low C by (depending on the design of your horn) either removing bumper material or screwing the bumper out, but that might make your D go sharp, particularly in the second octave for a reason we will illuminate below.

A couple saxophones have attempted to work around this issue of underventing, one of them being the chromatic-keyed saxophone Jim Schmidt is building [Sorry(!), but this web page has disappeared since the original publication of this article]
, another smaller example being the old Holton “Rudy Wiedoft” instruments that have two toneholes open for low C, increasing venting to work around the stuffy D, another being the Leblanc Rationale. [Sorry(!), but this web page has disappeared since the original publication of this article]
These designs have their drawbacks – the Schmidt saxophone requires a new fingering system and the Holton’s complex mechanism can go out of adjustment quickly and tends to feel heavy under the fingers, and the Leblanc was complex to make and so complex to repair they came with their own manual, the only saxophone I know of that has one! That said, the Leblanc Rationale is an exceptional instrument when you can get it repaired right.

(Whew! Halfway there!)

Second major design compromise: the saxophone only has two octave holes AKA “pips” (some horns have three – the Conn 28M Connstellation for example, and some have four- the Buffet-Powell – and some prototypes of have been made that have even more, such as the Loomis Double Resonance saxophone). These octave pips are on your neck and on the upper part of the body of the instrument. You can watch them actuate by pressing the octave key and fingering between A and G. Watch the mechanism as it automatically switches between the neck octave for A and above and the body octave for G# and below. Very early saxophones such as those built by Adolphe Sax did not have an automatic octave key, and the player had to manually select which one to actuate!

Acoustically (this explanation is vastly simplified for the purposes of this article), what these octave pips are doing is interrupting the airstream at a particular place to cause the horn to overblow the fundamental. In an acoustically ideal situation, we would have an octave pip for each chromatic note with the correct placement for each note (which is very roughly half of the way between the first open tonehole and the tip of the mouthpiece – play a low Bb and open your side Bb and see what happens, keep experimenting to find out some interesting things). 12 octave pips and the mechanism to automatically open one and close the rest! Since this would be mechanically cumbersome, we have compromised down to two pips centrally located in their ranges, and the positioning is less than ideal for the extreme ends of the ranges that each pip is responsible for (D through G# for the body octave, A and up for the neck octave).

This can cause a few different problems, most notably a hiss through the pip for notes at the extreme ends of the range of that pip (like the hiss in the A and G# you may hear) and also affecting intonation. This is because the pip is centrally located in the range for which is is responsible the lower pip is responsible for, D-G#, and thus is acoustically well positioned for F but not for G# or D.

This effect is sometimes pronounced, sometimes not. For an easy illustration, overblow the octave on a note without using the octave key – just use your throat. Be careful not to pinch your embouchure and affect the pitch, just voice in your throat. Then add the octave key. You’ll probably hear the tone color change and depending on your horn, you might also hear the pitch rise. This effect is most pronounced (usually) for D and A and G#.

For a saxophone acoustics primer, see here.

For a handy-dandy trick to reduce the hiss your hear on your A, see here. Basically what is happening here is reducing turbulence in the same way as putting a foam guard over a mic. Letting air go through, but complicating its path just enough to slow it down and reduce the hiss.

For a series of empirical experiments relating to octave pips, see here. I’m not completely sold on the methodology here but Curt is a good repairman and his results are well worth thinking about.

So, now that we know all this… for the stuffy D you asked about: while it can be ameliorated by good repair work and good horn design, the stuffy D is to a certain extent an inbuilt issue with the design of the saxophone. Assuming your horn is in good shape and you’ve already been to a good repairman to see what adjustments can be made, I would suggest opening your throat and compensating as much as you can with your embouchure. Opening your low C# will, as you said, make it sharp, and middle D is commonly sharp relative to low D anyways due to octave pip placement we just spoke about, so its probably not the best solution- but hey if it works for you, it works for you.

There is also an old-timers trick that might help you, but its more of a stop-gap than a solution: try putting a wine cork in the bow of your horn while you play. This effectively reduces the volume at the low C tonehole (where low and middle D come out of the horn) and could make your problem better or worse, but try it. This trick can also work for a burbling low D or low C. Interesting aside: The US assembly factory for Selmer made a permanent modification of this nature on some later Mark VI altos by soldering a patch inside the bow before lacquering. Not the prettiest solution, but they obviously thought it was necessary.

As always, depending on you, your setup, your horn- results may vary.

Even if you don’t understand the technical aspects of what I just explained, what is important for you to understand is that the saxophone is not a perfect musical instrument – such a thing does not exist. As the player, you must train yourself, pay attention, thirst for knowledge, and hone your skills if you want to improve, play in tune, and play with a good tone. A well-made and well-designed saxophone (particularly one that has been in the hands of an excellent repairman) will make your job easier, but at the end of the day when its just you and your horn in the woodshed, it is your job.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found this helpful to your development as a saxophone player, and I look forward to your questions for my next column!


matt stohrer
stohrermusic.com